Colorado History

Thirteen Horrifying Colorado Murders

Colorado has seen its share of horrible crimes.

When we think of murders across the state’s history, the first things that come to mind are now-notorious names of places, victims and killers: Sand Creek, Ludlow, JonBenét Ramsey, Alfred Packer, Ted Bundy, Adolph Coors III, Harris and Klebold.

But Colorado has also seen its share of obscure but fascinating homicides, some of which took place in locales we pass by every day.

1. Fremont’s Folly
Victims: Old Bill Williams, Dr. Benjamin Kern
Junction of Embargo Creek and Rio Grande, near South Fork
March 21, 1849

From 1843 to 1846, the nationally famous “Pathfinder” John C. Fremont led three successful expeditions into the American West, mapping its blank spots and encouraging the influx of European-American settlers. After his dishonorable discharge during the Mexican-American War, though, Fremont's star was on the wane. In an effort to regain the limelight, he recklessly led his Fourth Expedition into Colorado’s wintry, nearly impassable Sangre de Cristo Mountains in 1848, guided by master trapper Bill Williams, looking for a rail route from St. Louis to San Francisco. Fremont’s refusal to turn back led to the deaths of ten members of the party from starvation and exposure. The survivors struggled into Taos, New Mexico, on February 12, 1849. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Fremont ordered Williams and Kern back to recover cached equipment and notes two weeks later, and they were subsequently shot to death by Utes. Fremont became a senator and the first Republican candidate for president.

2. The Lake County War
Victim: Judge Elias Dyer
Granite, Colorado
July 4, 1875

A feud between neighbors Elijah Gibbs and George Harrington in 1874, in the high country between Leadville and Buena Vista, grew into a series of armed combats fought by rival groups of ranchers in the region. Judge Elias Dyer was run out of the county once by the Gibbs faction; he returned with warrants for sixteen members of the self-titled "Committee of Safety." On July 4, 1875, Dyer, surrounded by thirty hostile vigilantes, dismissed the charges when no witnesses came forward against them. The courtroom emptied; then five men returned and shot Dyer to death. No one was ever charged with the crime. Dyer’s gravestone in Castle Rock’s Cedar Hill Cemetery quotes from his farewell letter to his father as follows: “A victim of the murderous mob ruling in Lake County/I trust in God and his mercy: at 8 o’clock I sit in court, the mob have me under guard: I die for law, order, and principle.”

3. The White River War
Victims: Tabweah, Nathan Meeker, others
Tabernash and Meeker, Colorado

Tensions between the Utes and white settlers in the Colorado mountains escalated steadily throughout the 1870s. Tribal member Tabweah was killed by prospector Frank Addison in a dispute on September 1, 1878. This was one of many violent incidents that culminated in the Meeker Massacre on September 30, 1879, when Indian agent Nathan Meeker and eleven others were killed by Ute warriors resentful of the attempt to make them farmers. It would take five years for the conflict to end with the forced removal of the surviving Utes to various reservations. The Town of Meeker was founded in 1883 on the site of his death, the former White River Reservation. In 1902, the Town of Tabernash, a corruption of Tabweah’s name, was founded in his memory.

4. The Hop Alley Riot
Victim: Sing Lee
19th and Arapahoe streets
October 31, 1880

The Hop Alley riot of Halloween 1880 was the most destructive expression of anti-Asian prejudice in Colorado until the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. At the time, approximately 3,000 Chinese immigrant residents existed in poverty in the area bound by Blake, Market, 19th and 22nd streets. “Hop Alley,” 20th to 21st between Blake and Market, was named for the opium dens located in the precinct — as many as seventeen of them. Resentment about the immigrants taking jobs and racist hysteria raised tensions. A barroom fight triggered a rampage that injured scores. Twenty-three houses of the Chinese burned down. Laundryman Sing Lee was caught by the mob and beaten. Dr. C.C. Bradbury and others tried to intervene. “Blood spattered all over my clothes as I knelt down beside him, placing my own body between him and the vengeful throng, and I received several severe blows,” testified Bradbury. Despite medical efforts, Lee died hours later.

5. The Colorado Labor Wars
Victim: Arthur Collins, others
Pandora, Colorado
November 20, 1902

Miners and mine owners were at each other’s throats at the turn of the last century. The Western Federation of Miners battled management in a series of strikes, armed confrontations, forced deportations of strikers, sabotage and worse across the West, and particularly in Colorado. Cripple Creek, Leadville, Denver and Durango were among the towns affected. One of the most bitter struggles took place in Telluride, where mine manager Arthur Collins cut wages and relaxed safety regulations to increase profit. He countered a 1901 strike by hiring gunmen and strikebreakers. On November 20, 1901, a fire at his Smuggler-Union Mine, attributed in part to Collins’s cost-cutting measures, killed 24. Exactly one year later, Collins was killed by a shotgun blast as he sat in his home on mine property. The murderer was never found. The Labor War lingered until 1907, with the union the loser in every instance. In 1905, however, WFM members helped found the International Workers of the World, an organization that had more success and still exists today. The murder site, long abandoned, is slated for residential redevelopment.

6. Murder at Mount Carmel
Victim: Father Mariano Felice Lepore
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, 3549 Navajo Street
November 19, 1903

People were not very fond of Catholic priest Father Mariano Lepore. In 1898, the parish priest was denounced by four Denver Italian societies in a statement that referred to him as someone “who has perverted the attributes given him by God to uses of selfish cunning, hypocrisy, and deceit....” Many parishioners broke away from him and built a rival church around the block from Mount Carmel. In October 1903, a laborer from Philadelphia, Giuseppe Sorice, came to town asserting that Lepore owed him money. On November 19, the two were playing cards in the parish house when the drunken Sorice shot Lepore three times. Lepore got the gun away from Sorice and shot him fatally as well. After Lepore's death, the breakaway congregants returned to Mount Carmel under the guidance of its new priest, Father Moreschini, as well as that of future saint Mother Cabrini. Lepore left an estate worth $20,000; in 1907, a previously unknown wife and son successfully laid claim to part of it.

Continue to learn about seven more horrifying Colorado murders.

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Brad Weismann became an award-winning writer and editor after spending years as a comedian. He's written about everything from grand opera to movies for a diverse array of magazines, newspapers and websites worldwide.